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Home builders see demand for bigger houses

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A big home fades into the horizon.

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Demand for more space during the coronavirus pandemic may be reversing a recent trend toward slightly smaller homes.

The average size of a new single-family home peaked at 2,689 square feet five years ago, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Picture maybe a two-story house with four bedrooms and two and a half baths.

That average has been falling gradually ever since, as more millennials have entered the market seeking affordable first homes, said Rose Quint, who researches housing trends with the National Association of Home Builders.

But now?

“Because of the pandemic, we are seeing data already that builders are getting more requests for larger homes because people want more space,” she said.

Quint predicts numbers for the second half of this year will show average home size growing again, as buyers look for space to work, go to school and exercise — at home.

A chart from the National Association of Home Builders, based on U.S. Census Bureau data, shows the evolution of average and median new home size.

A return to bigger floor plans isn’t great for the environment, said Maurie Cohen, who teaches sustainability at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The larger the home, the more carbon emitted in the construction process. Larger spaces also require more energy to heat and cool, he said.

“There has been very little attention devoted to the fact that if we’re really serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making a meaningful contribution on climate change, that one of the more surefire ways of doing so is by focusing on a reduction in home size,” Cohen said.

But even if people want bigger houses, they can’t necessarily afford them, said Ali Wolf, chief economist at Zonda, a housing data and consulting firm. Home prices have continued to grow during the pandemic as building costs rise and buyers taking advantage of low mortgage interest rates compete for a limited supply of homes for sale.

“Builders are really struggling with, ‘Should we build larger homes that may have to come with a larger price tag? Or do we keep building attainable homes and figure out creative solutions so that people can still use their home as a gym and as a home office, but they can also afford it without stretching their budget?’” Wolf said.

One builder she knows took a bit of extra closet space and turned it into a Zoom room — just big enough for a desk and chair.

Same square footage, whole different vibe.

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